Norfolk farmers rush to protect frostbitten fruit trees

·3 min read

Norfolk County fruit farmers hope Jack Frost has run his icy fingers over their fields for the last time this spring.

“The thing that’s been tricky this year is it happens over and over and over again,” said apple farmer Amanda Dooney of Suncrest Orchards.

“We’ve just had night after night of these frost events.”

Multiple frost warnings from Environment Canada in recent weeks — including one on Tuesday — sent farmers’ anxiety rising as the mercury fell, since frost damage can be devastating for field crops.

But there was no frost advisory issued for Thursday night, and the long-range forecast gives reason for optimism.

“Temperatures are going to bounce up quite nicely,” said Environment Canada meteorologist Peter Kimbell.

That means farmers will not have to spend another sleepless night irrigating strawberries or fanning apple trees with wind turbines to protect them from frost damage.

The turbines, known as frost machines, push warm air hovering above the orchard toward the cooler air threatening the trees. The intermingling raises the air temperature just enough to keep apple buds from dying of cold.

The turbines have been spinning at Schuyler Farms in Simcoe, where farmer Brett Schuyler also uses overhead irrigation to spray his cherry trees with water until a protective coating of ice forms around the blossoms, insulating them from the cold.

“As the water turns to ice, it actually gives off heat and helps maintain the temperature close to zero, instead of letting it plunge down to whatever the temperature outside is,” Schuyler said.

He admits it sounds counterintuitive to release heat by making ice, but it works.

“What we know is, if you do it right and use enough water, it’ll protect the crop,” Schuyler said.

Overhead — or solid set — irrigation is a technique strawberry farmers like Sharon Judd of Meadow Lynn Farms in Simcoe use to guard against the late-spring chill.

The recent frost meant coating the farm’s exposed strawberry blossoms with a fine mist of water from the nearby Lynn River to ensure the berries make it to their June flowering date.

Colder May nights are to be expected in Ontario, Kimbell said, noting a frost advisory was issued as late as May 13 last year.

“We have seen these cold starts to May before. Normal lows would be about plus 7, but it’s not unheard of to have frost this time of year,” he said.

“But it’s a bit unpleasant for the farmers.”

Now that the worst weather appears to be over, Dooney and her husband, Hayden, plan to inspect their trees this weekend to see how many buds made it through.

“So far we’ve seen a little bit of damage on the edges of the farm, where the frost fan isn’t reaching,” she said.

“Every little cluster has about five flowers on it, and you only need one of those little buds to produce an apple. So as long as you’ve got one in there that’s green, you can still produce a crop.”

Schuyler said irrigating the cherry trees seems to have done the trick.

“There was some spotty frost damage out there, but all in all, we still think there’s potential for a very good crop,” he said, noting that surviving frost is only the first hurdle.

“There’s so many variables with these fruit trees and a lot more milestones to get through before the crop is harvested.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator